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Spartan Helot: Definition & Revolt

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet the Spartan helots. Discover how they became slaves to the Spartans and learn about their lives. Explore the society of the ancient Spartans through the helots and learn about one successful attempt to rebel.

Definition

A Spartan helot was a slave owned by the city-state of Sparta in ancient Greece. The Spartan helots came from the groups of people that the Spartans, a warrior culture, subjugated.

Map of Ancient Greece
Map of Ancient Greece

Who Were the Spartan Helots?

Between 750 and 550 B.C.E. several ancient Greek civilizations began to expand across mainland and outward to Africa, Sicily, southern Italy and Spain. The spread of Greek city-states across the Mediterranean was partially a result of overpopulation and a need for more farmland. The Spartans were a particularly land-hungry warrior society. In 715 B.C.E., the Spartans solved their need for more land by conquering the agriculturally rich region of Messene.

Photograph of ruins of Messene by Herbert Ortner
Photograph of ruins of Messene by Herbert Ortner

The people of Messene were taken hostage as slaves or helots and were used to farm the lands they had once possessed. The helots' work helped to make Sparta a wealthy city, and in time they became trusted members of Spartan families. A number of ancient sources mention helots that acted as domestic servants or companions to high-ranking Spartan elites.

Slavery in the ancient world was remarkably different from the type of slavery practiced in the Americas. The Spartan helots could be treated badly or abused by the Spartans and in some cases were even killed; however, despite the abuse, slavery was not a hereditary condition (meaning offspring of helots were not necessarily helots themselves) and the helots were owned by the state instead of individual Spartans. Helots could marry and create their own family units. On some occasions helots were able to purchase their freedom from the state. Helots could also seek their freedom by volunteering for military engagements. In some ways, helots acted more as a lower socioeconomic class than as slaves by modern standards.

Rebellion

Although helots were granted more freedoms than African slaves in America were, like all enslaved people, they still chafed at the restrictions and poor treatment they received. Over time there were a number of helot rebellions. One helot rebellion took the highly trained and generally very efficient Spartan military over thirty years to quash. After each rebellion attempt, the helots faced increased violence at the hands of their Spartan masters.

Statue of Spartan warrior
Statue of Spartan warrior

It is important to understand that the ancient Spartans practiced a type of eugenics program for themselves. In Sparta, only strong infants were allowed to survive. Any infant that showed a sign of weakness would be left out to die. In addition, Spartan men spent much of their lives away in battle and thus fewer women became pregnant. These cultural practices led to a decreased population of Spartans at the same time generations of helots had produced children, leading to a much larger population of helots than Spartans.

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